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London Rowing Club, Putney by Toh Shimazaki

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Toh Shimazaki has produced an orderly and warm extension to a venerable London rowing institution.
Photography by Christine Sullivan

Putney Embankment on a Sunday morning is a busy place. While the rest of London is lolling in bed, the south bank of the Thames is bustling with lycra-clad rowers.

A third of the way along the stretch of the river between Putney bridge and Fulham Football Club’s Craven Cottage ground, one group of about 30 rowers is flitting between the water and Toh Shimazaki’s reworking of and extension to London Rowing Club (LRC).

Toh Shimazaki was founded in 1995 by Yuli Toh after eight years working at the Richard Rogers Partnership (RRP), where she met her partner Takero Shimazaki .The 14-strong practice has completed several residential projects, including the Open and Shut House in Surrey (AJ 12.04.07). It has now completed stage two of a six-stage masterplan for the rowing club, a centre for athletes training for national and Olympic competitions.

Yuh Toh was initially approached by Stuart Forbes, a former colleague of hers from RRP (now Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners) and member of LRC, to take on the future construction programme of the club. The club was eager to retain its independent status, which ruled out Lottery or Sport England funding. The client opted instead for a staged programme of building works to be paid for by its membership.

The archetypal boathouse is a long, low building set at 90º to the river. The uncomplicated requirement is that it stores boats, blades and assorted equipment. A pitched roof and sliding or hinged doors give it a look similar to an agricultural building.

London Rowing Club’s building however, though built in the early 1870s, is more Georgian townhouse than riverside pig shed. Its fair-faced brickwork and four-storey height give it confidence and permanence. The club is the oldest on Putney embankment, established in 1856, with additions madethroughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The last major works were completed in 1972.

Toh had told me prior to my visit that the building was ‘not a one-liner’. Looking at it in plan this is evident - the additions and change in circulation need pointing out - but upon visiting this becomes more apparent; the London stock brick used throughout masks any juncture between old and new. On closer inspection, the large plate-glass window that juts out from the back of club gives the clue to where the architect has added a new volume that houses the interior back stair.

This window is the project’s only moment of ostentation. It addresses the gable end of a terrace and the alleyway that runs from the towpath to Putney High Street. Beneath it is a hardwood door that provides access to the new stairs that lead to the upstairs of the boathouse.

‘One of our aims was to provide a distinction between the rowing and the social functions of the club’ says Toh. To this end a new access point was added to the back of the club.

In theory this means that the front entrance and stairs to the first floor are used for formal - or non-mucky - purposes and the back is used for rowers accessing the changing rooms.

This should spare the carpet of the Fairbairn Room - a social space between the Club Room and the stairs. A galvanised-steel staircase gives access to a first-floor landing between Fairbairn Room and back stairs.

‘We used a very robust materials palette’ says Toh. The inside of the stairwell is faced with exposed engineering blocks and had a resin floor and a heavy-duty steel staircase. ‘In this project everything has to be orientated toward the rowing; if it doesn’t work it is out’ says Toh. The area is well-lit by the picture window and the materials make the interior, which is still quite clean, neatly Spartan. Rowers tend to be a tall breed, and to prevent unnecessary banged heads the staircase is top hung, dispensing with the need for a pillar between the landing and floor.

This is one of the many areas of the building where special attention has been given to levels, making sure they chime with future development. This is due to the proposed extension between LRC and itsneighbour, King’s School Rowing Club, with whom it will share a party wall. This proposed development has not received planning
permission, but it is part of the phased development outlined by Toh Shimazaki after undertaking an initial condition survey in 1996 in what it refers to as the masterplan.

While the new staircase is obviously Toh Shimazaki’s addition, the additions at the back of the boathouse are more ambiguous. Two pillars supporting the wooden ceiling mark the boundary of what used to be an outside area before the 1972 development added a storey on top of the flat-tiled roof.

In turn, Toh Shimazaki’s extension was built on to what used to be a flat asbestos roof to create the Crew Room. This room is entirely new-build, using a glulam frame to support a slate roof. It has extended the back of the boat club, but its slate roof and brickwork mean that it does not offend the view of the houses whose gardens overlook the rear of the club. It is well-lit by skylights which have been punched through the river side of its pitched roof, and a row of clerestory windows that runs along the back of the room.

On ground level, six sets of hardwood double doors give access to the boathouse proper. The six bays house a selection of eights, fours, pairs and single sculls. The architect replaced a cumbersome scaffolding storage system with a modern racking system. Towards the back of the boathouse, a new roof was added.

Between the boathouse and King’s School Rowing Club is a corrugated iron shed that houses sculling boats. This is the proposed infill site which, according to the masterplan, will be replaced with another bay for boats and extended upwards to continue the line of the front elevation of the boathouse.

Asked whether he is happy with project, club captain David Finn says: ‘It’s fantastic. The great thing was that the boathouse was fully operational at all times.’ Toh Shimazaki has created a utilitarian solution that reflects the club’s warmth and sense of history. The hardy simplicity of the materials underlines the practice’s measured approach. Perhaps most importantly, the architecture does not get in the way of the most important thing: the rowing.

Start on site date 24 July 2006
Contract duration 12 months
Gross external floor area 466m2
Form of contract JCT IFC 2005
Cost Private
Client The London Rowing Club
Architect Toh Shimazaki
Structural engineer Fothergill
Quantity surveyor CN Associates
Planning supervisor Stace Health and Safety
Main contractor Mansell Construction Services
Services engineer En Masse
Annual CO2 emissions According to the services engineer, no measurements were required or undertaken

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